Jabal Shams (3012m) is the highest mountain in Oman. We knew that this would be a great challenge, even impossible because of restricted areas. But we had to give it a try. This is what adventures is all about.
Driving from UAE to Oman
We spent surprisingly many hours driving from Jabal Bil Ays (country high point in UAE) to the city Bahla in Oman, not far from Jabal Shams. First we did some mistakes around the city of Al Ain in the south of the UAE, because of diversions in connection with road construction. We drove a while without GPS, but we thankfully got back to the main road, when we let the gps calculate a new route to the border. There was just a short line of cars heading out of UAE, but what took time was that the immigration officer left our passports on the desk, while he continued to serve tourists from the Gulf region. It's possible that our passports had to lie there and mature a little bit on the desk before he finally could stamp us out. Or maybe it was our appearance with dirty clothes and beard stubble that was the cause. The fact that Lars was wearing short pants thus showing his knees in a Muslim country (no-no, Lars!) was not to our benefit either. Moreover, we surprisingly had to pay to get out of UAE, a so-called departure tax of 35 AED (10 USD) per person. After that we continued to the immigration in Oman, but also here we felt they were giving us low priority. Our passports were put aside, while tourists from the Gulf region were given their stamps immediately. In addition, we had to fill out an arrival form and the border guard charged us a staggering 20 OMR (52 USD) each for the visa. The papers on the rental car, however, went quickly through the system thanks to Budget's pre-arranged cross-border papers that we handed over to them. I think we spent nearly two hours just on the border. We then continued driving southwards in Oman. It was a highway here as well, but not quite on par with the UAE. Among other things, there were lots of sand and stones in the driving lanes. So when a car passed us at high speed, it sent a small stone towards our windshield, hitting it with a loud bang. It created a nice star in the windshield, about 2 cm in diameter.
We arrived Bahla long after darkness. We saw a hotel along the road and decided to check in there, instead of driving on. We were not at all tempted to sleep under the stars another night, because the high chance of precipitation. Lars had lost his passport, so initially we had some problems checking in at the hotel. Understandably they would probably not like to have a paperless refugee living in their hotel. We spent almost an hour to search the entire car and all our baggage, two and three times before Lars finally found the passport in the bottom of his large backpack. How it ended up there, after frequent presentation of our passports at the border, will remain a mystery. We shared a room with two beds, and got ourselves a dinner and breakfast for the total amount of about 40 OMR (104 USD). The friendly lady in the reception also claimed that we could drive all the way to the top of Jabal Shams. A very surprising news, because we thought that the road could only be driven to an elevation of 2200m. It's not possible to get higher up because of a closed gate (military check post), we had read. Well, we did not exactly trust her words, because people without mountain and peakbagging knowledge, lack some understanding of what is a summit and what is not. We decided, therefore, fully in line with our original plan, to head up very early the next morning in case we still had to walk up to Jabal Shams.
To the very top of Jabal Shams against all odds
We had breakfast at 5:30am, then we checked out of the hotel and went out in the car. We discovered that a 20 cm long crack had developed in the windshield. Well, we had full insurance (CDW with no deductibles) and did not think much about it. None of us ever thought that we had to obtain a police report in order to claim it on the insurance, at least not for this kind of damage. This gave us a shock when we later returned the car in Dubai. But more about that later.
We had no problems finding the exit on Highway 21 just south of Bahla, for here was a good sign for Al Hamra (in addition to Jabal Shams if I remember correctly). Moreover, we had my gps as backup. It was surprisingly good roads with asphalt, both past Al Hamra and further beyond. When the steepest hills began, there were alternating asphalt and gravel. We did not take left towards Jabal Shams Base Camp, because we first wanted to check out if the road was actually open to the very top. But a little farther up, where there is an exit and a road continuing up Jabal Shams, we discovered that it was blocked by a gate and barbed wire around. I talked to the guard, and he responded quickly that the road is only for military vehicles. I asked him if we could park the car outside the gate and instead walk up the road, but then he replied that Jabal Shams was "restricted area". When I asked him if we could drive down to Jabal Shams Base Camp and walk from there, he repeated a bit harshly that the entire Jabal Shams mountain was "restricted area" and that we had nothing there to do. This was indeed bad new.
I went back to the car and discussed with Lars what we should do. Lars wanted to park the car out of view, and then sneak around the fence so we could walk on the mountain road. But this idea I did not like, because the risk of being observed along the road was too high. We agreed to drive all the way back to Jabal Shams BC, well out of sight, even if this required us to drop 300 meters in elevation. Arriving at BC we saw a camp site with several cabins. Close by we found a marked trail to Jabal Shams. We parked the car (1920m) and began to walk along the trail. The track was almost invisible, however, it was well marked with painting every 10-20 meters, so the route was easy to follow. The trail headed right towards the ridge, and then mostly followed the rim of a huge canyon. We had great views along the trail, almost like the Grand Canyon in USA. When we passed 2600m in elevation, we realized that the trail does not lead to the highest point of Jabal Shams, but rather turned away towards the lower south summit. We fully understand that the military does not want to have a marked trail near their installations. We decided nevertheless to leave the trail, and sneak us directly towards the main summit. We took a short break before we started on a stretch where we could be easily seen from the installation on top. We wanted to minimize the time of exposure by walking fast. One becomes a bit paranoid in such surroundings, thus I was quite sure I saw a big, ugly guard dog prowling around. In retrospect it turned out to be a harmless goat.
Eventually we came up to the military road and a helicopter platform, not far from the dome (radar) and building on top. Here the gps track which I had downloaded from another hiker, who claimed to have been on top of Jabal Shams, suddenly stopped. But this was certainly not the highest point. Since we had reached so far, we might as well try to walk the last few meters up the road in direction of the green dome/radar. Shortly before we reached it, we came to a high fence and a gate. Outside of it was a sign with big letters saying "Restricted area, keep away". We saw a man inside the gate, so Lars was no less audacious that he ventured into the open gate and began talking to the man. But in contrary to the officer we had met earlier this day, this guy was not in uniform and he greeted us with a big smile. We were welcomed to continue towards the dome and get in touch with those who were inside the building. He told us that two Americans worked there and they would probably serve us both water and coffee as well as take us to the top of the dome/radar. But instead of going into the building, we decided first to check out the surrounding area, in order to find the highest point. We saw two potential candidates along the rim, no more than a stone's throw from each other. We measured the first to be 3011 meters and the other one just next to the dome, to be 3012 meters. The latter rock also had a small cairn built on top of it. Now it was no longer any doubt, we had climbed to the highest point of Jabal Shams. It was almost surreal to stand there, because we both had expected this would be mission impossible, and that we most likely, had to be content with a lower point which lies outside the "restricted area". The excitement to actually reach the very top of Jabal Shams against all odds, is beyond words to explain.
While walking around in the restricted area, no one ever approached us. Very strange, as we earlier that day had the definite impression that this was a well guarded area. We opened the door to see if there was anyone inside the building, but we did not dare to sneak around inside the radar. We neither heard nor saw anyone while we stood bewildered at the door, so we decided to leave. We were more than satisfied already, this day had actually exceeded all expectations. We therefore went out of the gate and walked over to a more northerly point of Jabal Shams which has good views of the rim and the dome. Here we had our lunch and relaxed in the pleasant temperature. We were dozing in the sun for nearly two hours, before we started on the return. Well down in the car, we drove back to Bahla and then straight to Ibri before dark. Here we checked in at a hotel outside of the city. To celebrate the almost unreal summit, we ate steak and drank a couple of beers. Then we were ready for a long night of sleep after a couple of hard days with relatively little sleep.
Back to Dubai and more troubles awaiting
Next morning we went into the city center of Ibri to buy new sandals to Lars. His old sandals had begun to disintegrate, according to Lars because of many years of rough hikes and major river crossings. We found a pair of cheap sandals at a local mall, probably not something of good quality, but certainly good enough for the two tiny hills in Bahrain and Qatar. Then we continued driving towards the border. Fortunately, there were virtually no queues at the border. It went surprisingly fast to get out of Oman (no departure tax) and then enter UAE (no visa fee). Lars needed to exchange money, so we stopped at a large shopping center not far from the border. There we also tested out some Iranian food for lunch.
The nice motorways (120 km/h) got us quickly back to Dubai, and since we had plenty of time before our flight departed, we decided to take a closer look at Burj Dubai, the world's tallest skyscraper (828m). There was less traffic than normal, since it was Saturday, so we drove all the way into downtown. Lars was driving, while I was responsible for the navigation (gps). The 4-5 years old road map on my gps, proved quite useless, especially near Burj Dubai which has seen major changes in the road system the last few years. So after a while we turned off the gps and rather used the famous skyscraper as navigation. After some hassles we finally reached into the neighborhood of Burj Dubai, and parked the car in Dubai Mall (free). Tickets to the top of Burj Dubai costs 100 AED (27 USD), but there was nothing available until the next day. Express tickets were sold for a staggering 400 AED (109 USD), but this didn't work out either as the next tour was at 8pm, ie too late to catch our flights. Thus we drove directly to the airport, so we would have plenty of time there. We were wrong. Once the car was delivered and inspected, we were told that it had a crack in the windshield, and that we didn't have any police report. We had to pay for the replacement of the windshield, we were told. Well, if it's so that one have to call the police every time there is a crack in the windshield, then the police would have hectic days. We felt this was totally unreasonable, especially since we had paid for full insurance (CDW). But it doesn't help to have a full insurance, if you don't have a police report to show. Luckily we found a police office at the airport. But the policeman who was responsible for issuing damage reports was apparently not inside. It took at least a couple of hours with a lot of back and forth between the police station and the Budget Car Rental office, before the police report was finally in place. Then we had spent such a long time on this, that we almost lost our flight to Bahrain. But everything solved in the end, so that we could continue to collect more country high points in Bahrain and Qatar.
Driving from Bahla to Jabal Shams BC at EveryTrail
Jabal Shams at EveryTrail